People enter the Jobcentre Plus office in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The coalition's "Help to Work" won't help the jobless

The DWP's own study found that forcing claimants to do community work or attend daily jobcentre meetings made almost no difference to employment levels. 

When George Osborne announced the government's new "Help to Work" programme, which launches today, at the Conservative conference last year, he declared: "We are saying there is no option of doing nothing for your benefits, no something-for-nothing any more." It was the language of retribution.

From now on, those claimants (sotto voce: "scroungers") who have been on the Work Programme for more than two years and have failed to find a job, will be required to either attend daily meetings with jobcentre advisers, carry out community work ( such as making meals for the elderly, clearing up litter, working for a local charity) for six months without pay, or undergo an "intensive regime of support" to address underlying problems such as drug addiction and illiteracy. Those who refuse will have their benefits docked for four weeks. 

Despite Osborne's "something-for-nothing" rhetoric, employment minister Esther McVey insisted on the Today programme this morning that the scheme was not about "punishment" but about "getting people into work and fulfilling their potential". Yet even if we take her rhetoric at face value, how helpful is Help to Work likely to be? Judging by the DWP's pilot (the results of which, as Jonathan Portes notes, it has avoided publicising), the answer is "not very".  

The department took 15,000 claimants and placed them in either the jobcentre programme, the community work scheme, or a control group. At the end of the pilot, it found that the same number in the control group (18 per cent) found employment as those doing workfare and that just 1 per cent more of those receiving jobcentre support did. In other words, Help to Work made almost no difference. Yet despite this, the government has proceeded to extend the £300m programme nationwide without any cost-benefit analysis. It is another triumph of politics over policy. 

Thirty voluntary sector organisations, including Oxfam and the Salvation Army, have rightly opted not to participate in the scheme and have responded by launching a new campaign to Keep Volunteering Voluntary. "Workfare schemes force unemployed people to carry out unpaid work or face benefit sanctions that can cause hardship and destitution," they warn. "We believe in keeping volunteering voluntary and will not participate in government workfare schemes."

Labour has responded by reminding voters of its Compulsory Jobs Guarantee scheme, which would offer every young person out of work for more than 12 months and every adult (aged over 25) out of work for more than two years a paid job, and its plan to offer training to those without basic maths, English and IT skills. As I've noted before, nearly one in ten people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance lack basic literacy skills, while more than one in ten lack basic numeracy skills (making them twice as likely as those in work to not have these skills). Half are unable to complete basic word processing and spreadsheet tasks and nearly half lack basic emails skills. Government research found that a third of people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance had claimed the benefit at least three times before and that nearly 20 per cent of those with repeat claims had problems with literacy or numeracy.

A combination of guaranteed paid work and basic skills training is the best way to address the human waste of long-term unemployment. But for an enlightened and evidence-based approach, don't look to Osborne and co. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.